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ous improvement process through which they are rated based upon student achievement, school culture, and qualitative data derived from surveys completed by staff, students, and parents. Different levels of awards are presented to schools based upon these ratings, and networking opportunities are created to allow educators to share ideas and strategies to continue to provide children the best possible education.
According to Toombs Central Elementary School Principal Destiny Levant and Lyons Upper Elementary School Principal Tabatha Nobles, Toombs County Superintendent of Schools Barry Waller recommended they begin working with the Blue Ribbon organization because of his prior experience with the program when he was a teacher at Jeff Davis Middle School. “He told us he really felt like this program would fit well with our schools specifically because of our enthusiasm to continue to better our schools and our openness to new ideas,” Nobles said.
The Award Process
According to Waller, the organization’s representatives reviewed data from the last five years regarding attendance, discipline, and academic scores.
“They did a deep dive into what goes on at those schools,” Waller said of the Blue Ribbon process. “Really, it was our responsibility to come in with an open mind and just have school. We were not trying to put on an unrealistic show. Anyone can put on a dog and pony show.” Various students, staff, parents, and community members were interviewed about their views on the school system. Blue Ribbon representatives conducted surveys, attended a day and a half of school, witnessed normal operations and relations, and visited all classrooms within the school. The representatives also studied pacing guides, lesson plans, curriculum guides, and handbooks for each classroom.
“They said our level of engagement with our students is phenomenal,” Waller said. “There’s a reason why our schools are achieving what they are; there’s a reason why they have the highest CCRPI scores of elementary schools in the area. It is hard work with everything they have to do.”
The team of representatives took the data collected and details of the school climate that they observed and compared this information to the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence’s nine categories that determine a truly successful school.
Levant explained the relevance of these nine categories. “It’s a formula that they have created based on response to each of the standards. All of that gets compiled to determine whether the school is in the running to be a Lighthouse School.”
Opportunities for Growth Regarding the significance of being the system’s first Lighthouse School recipient, Levant said, “It was one of those things where I was excited because I was already looking for those changes that I wanted to make,” she added. “They really just opened up the land of opportunity in what they saw as being feasible at our school with our students.” These opportunities include clubs and groups, such as DARE, 4-H, Art, Music, STEM, and Foreign Language clubs. Nobles added that the students who were surveyed desired more options for enrichment and extracurricular activities. “The students said they love coming to school and enjoy it, but they want even more opportunities,” she noted. “This is not a hit to us as a school by any means because we had enough opportunities to meet the criteria of what the Blue Ribbon Schools organization was looking for in a Lighthouse School. It has been so neat to pick their brains for ideas that we could use that have been tried at other schools.”
Through these discussions with the Blue Ribbon Schools team, Nobles and Levant have found that innovations, such as club days and extension activities after school, have been extremely successful at other schools. Because of this, the pair plans to incorporate these types of events and activities into their own schools.
This type of opportunity for input and ideas from the Blue Ribbon Schools team exemplifies the sort of networking which both schools now have with other institutions across America, according to Waller. “What this does more than anything is offer a small rural school district with networking opportunities that may help us down the road with challenges we face,” he explained.
Waller also connected these opportunities to the current focus on social/ emotional learning that Toombs County Schools is promoting within the district. “Really, this helps us focus on what is referred to as ‘the whole child,’ meaning, a focus on more than just traditional desk learning,” he said. “It has opened our eyes to a whole lot more than the mere day-today.”
Nobles also spoke of the pride that she felt about receiving the award while dealing with challenges from the COVID pandemic. “I think one thing that makes it mean so much more to us is having done it after going through COVID and having to hunker down and make sure that everything gets done,” she said. “Wanting the kids to feel welcome and to want to be at school makes educators feel like we have to be entertainers sometimes; we are competing with everything else in the outside world. Our teachers have truly shown up and shown out constantly, and we get to see that daily; yet, others don’t get to see all the positive, so I think this is a wonderful thing,” Nobles said.
Waller summarized, “Both of these schools, through COVID and everything, had higher milestone scores than the year before. To me, that, on top of the Blue Ribbon process, brings to mind the word ‘validation.’ It validates the hard work that all of the staff are putting in to help our students learn and be successful. These awards provide opportunities for the next level. It helps us to see more opportunities for really taking off.”